Unions aren’t swinging to the right — but they’re doing their calculus

Unions aren’t swinging to the right — but they’re doing their calculus

President Joe Biden regularly professes his love for unions. But some of them aren’t ready to commit just yet.

A handful of national unions — collectively representing more than two million truck drivers, firefighters, postal workers, and others — have yet to publicly back Biden’s reelection, even as many others have endorsed the president considerably earlier than in previous cycles. The reluctance comes as unions are expected to play a big role in amplifying the Biden campaign’s pitch to working-class voters, particularly in must-win states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

It’s a friction that’s surfaced despite Biden having largely delivered on his vow to be the most labor-friendly president in decades.

For now, Biden allies say they are confident the president’s pro-union bona fides will mean strong support for him as the campaign unfolds. It is likely that many, if not all, of the holdouts will eventually line up behind Biden, particularly as the campaign season dials up.

It took until spring 2012 for organized labor, including many of the same noncommittal unions, to coalesce around former President Barack Obama’s reelection bid after having an occasionally-strained relationship with that White House.

It may be several months before some of the same unions make their plans official this time around. Four years ago, the United Auto Workers came out for Biden in April, the United Steelworkers followed suit in May and the Teamsters waited until August to endorse the Democratic ticket, months after Biden locked up the Democratic presidential nomination.

Some labor officials remain sore about the Biden administration’s intervention to prevent a nationwide rail strike in 2022, and many blue-collar unions are cognizant of their memberships’ drift toward Republicans in recent years. Other left-leaning contingents within organized labor have expressed dissatisfaction with Biden over his handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict — and explored long-shot ways to vent that frustration.

“We just didn’t see a particular benefit for early endorsements or jumping in until we address some unfinished business with this current administration,” American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein said in an interview.

He declined to say what those issues include, though APWU’s contract with the U.S. Postal Service is up for renewal later this year.

The situation also highlights work Democrats need to do to rally a key plank of their political base that saw its biggest hope for paradigm-shifting changes to labor law — the PRO Act — stymied by centrists within the party.

“There is a myth in our country that unions are monolithically left-wing organizations,” said Seth Harris, a key labor adviser during Biden’s 2020 campaign and presidential transition before serving as a member of the National Economic Council. “It behooves the leadership to listen to members. But ultimately the case here is very clear that President Biden is the right answer for unions, and they have benefited immensely from him.”

Biden’s track record on issues important to unions is strong.

He tapped a former union leader to helm the Labor Department for the first time in nearly a half-century, stocked the National Labor Relations Board with top appointees with union backgrounds and oversaw a spate of rule changes that collectively bolster organized labor’s hand against employers.

Biden also put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of a presidential task force on worker organizing, walked a picket line with striking autoworkers and headlined conventions for the AFL-CIO. In turn, the federation gave Biden its earliest presidential endorsement in history, following similarly expeditious commitments from influential unions like SEIU and the National Education Association.

“President Biden knows that the middle class built America and that unions built the middle class,” Biden-Harris reelection spokesperson Kevin Munoz said in a statement. “He is proud to be the most pro-union president in history and looks forward to continuing to work with workers across America to ensure working Americans get a fair share of the wealth they’re helping to create.”

Still, several unions who endorsed him over Trump in 2020 remain on the sidelines — and at least one is welcoming Trump to make a pitch to its members.

Perhaps most conspicuously, the head of the 1.3 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Sean O’Brien, met with Trump privately earlier this month before announcing that the former president agreed to sit down for a roundtable discussion at its D.C. headquarters that will include the union’s leadership and rank-and-file members.

In a social media post, O’Brien said the Teamsters’ goal is “making sure our members’ voices are heard as we head into a critical election year.”

The union held a round of meetings with presidential candidates in December, positioning them as a forum to hear out Democrats, Republicans and independents running in 2024.

“They were genuine in their communication and their openness,” former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the sole GOP candidate to appear at the initial roundtables, told POLITICO. “I reminded them that the Teamsters endorsed Ronald Reagan for his second term. And of course, they reminded me that he also fired a bunch of air traffic controllers, which was sort of an interesting exchange.”

It’s a far cry from the Teamsters’ approach four years ago when, under different leadership, it conditioned support on presidential wannabes signing a pledge to back relief funding for beleaguered pension funds, legislation expanding collective bargaining rights and worker-centric trade deals.

Biden was one of several Democrats at the time who signed the pledge, and one of his first major legislative achievements — the American Rescue Plan — included tens of billions of dollars in pension aid.

In December 2022, the administration extended roughly $36 billion of that to the Central States Pension Fund, a Teamsters plan spanning more than 350,000 workers and retirees that was on the brink of a steep benefits reduction. O’Brien attended the White House announcement.

The Teamsters are not the only union Biden embraced closely during his first three years who are playing hard-to-get.

The International Association of Fire Fighters was one of Biden’s earliest backers last time around, endorsing him just days after the former vice president entered the race in April 2019. At the time, IAFF was led by Harold Schaitberger, a longtime Biden ally who retired in 2021.

The union, now under Edward Kelly, has since kept its endorsement plans under wraps. An IAFF spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

Nevertheless, Biden has maintained his bond with IAFF, joining its annual conference last March and announcing a $22 million FEMA grant this December alongside Kelly. The White House recently announced a proposed update to a 1980s-era safety standard that would enhance protections for firefighters and other first responders.

Biden also has given a bear hug to the United Auto Workers. But the union repeatedly rebuffed questions about whether it would endorse him during last fall’s strike against Detroit automakers.

Still, Biden took the unprecedented step of joining one of its picket lines and later donning a red UAW shirt alongside union chief Shawn Fain in November championing the planned reopening of a Stellantis plant in Belvidere, Illinois, a product of the collective bargaining battle.

At the same time Fain, who regularly denounces the “billionaire class,” has criticized Trump in harsh terms — all but ruling out an endorsement of him. The UAW declined to comment on its endorsement process.

Other union leaders have also sent strong signals that their decision to withhold their endorsements, at least for the moment, won’t create an opening for the current Republican frontrunner to win them over.

“None of this should be interpreted that somehow our executive board or union will endorse a former president who openly wants to destroy the public postal service and the institution that we’re so proud to be part of,” said Dimondstein, of the postal workers union.

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